Heading into the final hours of the legislative session, it appears that DFLers finally are winning the battle of messaging.
Or perhaps, it’s just as accurate to suggest, that Republicans fumbled away any message advantage they held by getting tangled up in their social agenda. That political mess became much more difficult to get out of after a truly ugly “prayer” at the start of Friday morning’s House session.
While Republicans were stumbling over themselves, DFLers — either through a coordinated effort or by sheer happenstance — held a series of events designed to move the focus of the legislative session to the impact that proposed Republican budget cuts would have on Minnesotans.
The session, of course, is to end at midnight Monday. But it’s highly unlikely budget issues will be resolved by then between Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
In fact, more and more people think that not only the prospect of a special session but also a government shutdown is becoming more and more likely.
Controlling message to public is key
All of that means that controlling the message is of the utmost importance. Whoever controls the message ultimately could gain enough public support to break a stalemate.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk started the week by lecturing Capitol reporters for not doing enough reporting on what he said are the most important elements of this session, the impact that Republican cuts would have “on working people.” Reporters, he said, were too busy chasing Vikings stadium and gambling development and political tit-for-tat stories to get at the essence of this session.
Some reporters resented Bakk’s lecture, but few changed coverage patterns. Nevertheless, a seed had been planted.
Following his lecture, Bakk and Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, held a hearing Thursday to air the “real effects” of Republican proposals.
Also on Thursday, the governor met with the Republican House and Senate caucuses, chided them for a lack of leadership and talked again about how he “has moved halfway.” His basic message: It’s now their responsibility to move.
On Friday, the Capitol halls were filled with construction workers, wearing hard-hats and calling on legislators to get to work on creating jobs. (The governor — along with some Republican legislators — has been disappointed at how the governor’s bonding proposal went nowhere.)
Additionally on Friday, Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of Human Services, wrote in a Star Tribune op-ed piece: “The magnitude of cuts the legislature seeks will inflict substantial harm to our social fabric.”
Of course, these are the sorts of things Dayton has been saying since January. But now it appears he has a whole choir behind him.
Nobody in the governor’s office or in the offices of the AFL-CIO or DFL legislators would say this effort was coordinated.
Ken Martin, chairman of the DFL, said that all of this action was a “natural outgrowth” of people frustrated by the lack of constructive action by the Republican majority.
While DFLers and their supporters were reaching out to grab the attention of the media — and, of course, the public — Republicans were stumbling badly.
For months, party leaders had said with conviction that they were “focused like a laser” balancing that budget with no new revenue.
Has GOP social agenda undermined budget message?
But in the last two weeks, leaders either lost control of their own caucuses, or failed to understand how late-session pushing of the party’s social agenda would overwhelm their budget message.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are not publicly accepting the idea that they’ve lost control of the message.
Michael Brodkorb, for one, refuses to accept the notion that the Republicans fumbled when they unleashed a flurry of social legislation.
Brodkorb is the man who wears two hats: communications director for Senate Republicans and deputy chairman of the Republican Party. At least some DFLers believe he has one of the strongest voices in the Senate, a suggestion Brodkorb denies.
Did Republicans throw away its control of message by turning to such issues as gay marriage, abortion and guns in the final days of the session?
“It’s absolutely naïve for anyone to think that if we’d had Gov. Dayton and DFL majorities that social issues would not have been front and center,” said Brodkorb.
But he was quick to add that although social issues may have grabbed the headlines, they were not the dominant issues of the caucus this session.
“Even the governor said that the Legislature can multi-task,” Brodkorb said. “We don’t have a messaging concern. The bulk of what this Legislature has worked on is the budget.”
Signs of disarray
But in these crucial, final days of the session, it appears that social issues have thrown the Republican caucus — especially in the House — into at least a little disarray.
The amendment proposal that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman passed in the Senate but its fate this session now appears uncertain in the House.
Two Republicans already have said they cannot support the amendment. At least four or five others are said to be on the fence.
Meantime, there are rumblings that House leadership may not allow the amendment to come onto the floor for a vote in an effort to move the caucus away from the controversies the issue creates.
This morning’s prayer uttered by a homophobic pastor — both the message and the pastor were quickly rebuked by the House speaker — makes it even more unlikely that the marriage amendment will receive a House vote this year.
The cracks in Republican unity over social issues has led some to believe that there may be a handful of legislators who might ultimately be willing to side with DFLers in putting together a budget deal the governor could sign.
The problem that any wandering Republican faces is the activists in his or her home district. To upset the activists could mean loss of endorsement next election.
There are small signs everywhere that some Republican leaders are trying to cool down some of their more hot-headed colleagues.
This morning, for example, the governor met with leaders of several different conference committees.
Among them was Sen. Mike Parry, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the governor. It was Parry, you recall, who walked out of the Thursday meeting Dayton had with the GOP caucuses.
But after this morning’s meeting, as he was walking out of the governor’s office, Parry was pulled aside by Geoff Michel, deputy Senate majority leader and an old hand, before Parry met with reporters.
Parry, who is usually filled with fiery comments, was tepid.
“Best meeting we’ve had,” he said. “Excellent meeting.”
He disappeared, quickly and quietly, down the hall. Republicans seem to understand that the last thing they need at this moment is another headline.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.